I can accurately assert that I’ve been playing video games for most of my conscious life, ever since my parents bought me a Sega Genesis when I was seven. Over the years my gaming habit has evolved, from after-school hours tightly controlled by my mother, to the freedom of staying up late after college classes, to the more adult situation of finding a few hours to game when I can here and there, usually in isolation, as my friends also have full-time jobs, healthy social lives, and thriving relationships, and also because I regard gaming as a slightly shameful preoccupation I’ve just got to keep to myself, like eating at Taco Bell or still knowing some of the PokéRap by heart.
But gaming remained a consistent part of my life, a hobby I’ve maintained longer than I’ve enjoyed music or movies. I am willing to freely admit on this public website that the longest I’ve gone without playing something, whether on my phone, a PlayStation, or someone else’s Playstation is 10 days, and that’s because I was on vacation in another continent and was literally separated from my precious consoles. When I go home for the holidays, sometimes I hook up my old PlayStation 2 and play Guitar Hero, just to see if I’ve “still got it” — the “it” being mastery of a game where you pretend to do something (play guitar) I probably could’ve actually mastered had I practiced for the same amount of time in real life. That’s what gaming is like — a vampire’s bite tugging me toward the controller, in spite of all my logical resistance.
I flatter (or maybe flagellate) myself thinking that I could have used this time to read Proust or learn Spanish, though the reality is that were I not gaming I would’ve been listening to music or watching TV and movies or waiting for my favorite comics to be published online or learning why people hate Ross Douthat (he’s… conservative but also horny?). But because we like to minimize or deny the amount of time we spend doing something unvirtuous, we never consider that something taking up that much time until we are explicitly shown that they do.
So here’s how many hours I gamed in 2019: 832. I played video games on 265 days of the year; my top streak was eight hours in a row; my preferred gaming time was Sunday nights. The game I played the most was Enter the Gungeon, at 119 hours, followed by MLB The Show ‘19 at 98 hours and Persona 5 at 47 hours.
I know all this because Sony, which manufactures the PlayStation 4 that I love so much, offers a year-end round-up service that logs all the time you spent gaming, and collates it into a series of informative graphics and charts, much like Spotify does with the music you like, or your iPhone does with Screen Time. For some hideously curious reason, I logged in to find my numbers, knowing I probably wouldn’t like it. I looked at my charts with a woozy horror: 832 hours, spread out over 265 days?????? That’s like — I gamed two out of every three days this year. That’s like — I gamed two to three hours on those days. That’s like — oh God — what about Proust, or Spanish, or calling my mom, or going to seminary, or learning how to make risotto, or anything?
This resultant shame wasn’t shared by most of the gamers I talked to about their numbers. My buddy Patrick reported 900-plus hours played over 204 days, almost exclusively Overwatch. He asked if I was the number one gamer he’d talked to so far, and when I said no — that would be Zoe, who clocked in at more than 1,000 hours — he replied “i promise to improve in 2020.” Yannick, upon reporting his 300 hours, idly remarked: “this is like a lame imitation of the Spotify thing lol.” Craig reported an astonishing 2,800 hours, but immediately recognized the number was artificially inflated for reasons we couldn’t identify. Maybe he’d left the TV on without turning off the system and as a result all those passive hours were counted. Or maybe he actually gamed 2,800 hours and was lying to me.
I’d like to think the same is true of my numbers, which can’t actually add up to 832 hours. For one, I tallied how many games I devoted time to in 2019, and it was only eight or nine — and Sony would’ve told me if I’d spent 100-plus hours on any of them. I, too… left the TV on? I sleep-gamed? There is a person secretly squatting in my house who plays when I’m at work? My super used his spare key to log some hours because he doesn’t have a system of his own? All of those possibilities make sense to me. I need them to, because otherwise the number is just humiliating.
Must everything be optimized and monetized for efficiency? Whatever happened to just fucking off?
Unlike music or TV or movies, you don’t really know how big the time commitment of a game is until you’re in it. You might guess that something like Red Dead Redemption 2 will take “a while,” but you don’t put together the 200-plus hours until they’re completely accumulated. Instead, it just feels like a little bit here, a little bit there, until all of a sudden you’re done, several dozen hours and weeks later. Even the shortest games take up the same amount of time as the longest movies, so this kind of commitment is just baked into the medium, should you chose to indulge.
So now I try to rationalize those hours, hoping to find some reason and purpose. One hundred and nineteen hours of Enter the Gungeon? Well, it’s just an endlessly refreshable, replayable game that offers something new on every playthrough, which allows me to focus on improving my gameplay until I achieve the perfect run, which I’ll know when I play it. Besides, I’m so good at the game I can think about other stuff as I play, a parallel set of tracks running through my head where I contemplate my work, my life, my future, the state of the American left, my grocery list, and whatever else. Ninety-eight hours of a baseball game? Well, I created a starting pitcher named after myself, and I really want him to get a giant contract, which requires something like six or seven seasons of service — because baseball operates on a draconian system that limits player freedom — before I can truly enter free agency, and rake in all the bucks. That’s just how much time you simply have to invest to reach this milestone I’ve invented for myself. Forty-seven hours of Persona 5? Well, I was trying to beat it, and it takes a while to play. I haven’t beaten it, but I might; they’re releasing an improved version of the game this year, which means I’d have to start over, but hey, a better game. It might be worth it. The rest of the hours, who knows, but they were fun, and isn’t it important to have fun? Must everything be optimized and monetized for efficiency? Whatever happened to just fucking off?
On the other hand, 832 hours. Jesus Christ.
Last weekend, I took another brief, forced respite from gaming when I went out of town for a few days. My girlfriend and I ended up getting drinks with a friend who lived near where we were staying, and upon reporting what we’d been up to, I considered my giant gaming number and how I had been prevented from adding to it for a few days because I was physically separated from my systems and how freeing this had felt. “I think I have to quit playing video games,” I said, to a round of laughter. “That’s funny,” my friend’s partner said. “I’ve been thinking about getting into them.” In the isolation of upstate New York, he had more free time than he knew what to do with.
I told him to reconsider, that surely there was something else he could take up instead. Maybe knitting? (Why do people always say knitting when suggesting a new hobby? Is knitting as fun as Persona 5? If so I will take up knitting, only to see why it comes so frequently recommended.) Still, he found my resistance funny. When I got back to my apartment in Brooklyn, I was tired, and so without thinking about it, and in spite of my best intentions, I loaded up my baseball game. Sweet controller, returned to me at last! (It was three days.) I had a contract to earn, and it would take some more time, though hopefully not too much.